The danger of the big research reveal

The Research Graveyard. Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/mcfarlandmo/3275420128

One of the most soul destroying things to happen to a researcher is for their work to get put on a shelf and gather dust. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve spent weeks doing hands on research and putting together a report or presentation that once delivered wasn’t actioned and seemingly made no impact. The best kind of research is actionable and won’t gather dust. How?

Research conversations are the thing

Just like in design/client relationships, there is a real danger with a ‘big reveal’ for research projects too. Buy in is the key thing. You need to involve people — ranging from senior stakeholders to direct colleagues. Whatever the culture, finding opportunities to involve people in the actual research or conversations about research are key to it actually being used. The Research Debrief, PowerPoint strategy or the 32 page report is not the research. It’s an artefact of a conversation, of a collaboration. Being involved in the process is the research and will give the decision maker the insights they need. Discussing, sharing and jointly deciding on outcomes is the important bit.

I’ve written previously about how I think research is everyone’s job and can help you make better decisions. Whilst I worked in-house at Monotype, I wasn’t there to get in the way of all the great work already being done and to do every single piece of research, for every single project. My role was more of a facilitator of research best practice. I aimed to empower everyone in the product team to get involved with research — whether that be running a research project, watching people use products, drafting a survey or facilitating a session where research insights were used.

Prior to Monotype, I’d spent an equal amount of time working in agency side research roles and as an in-house client side researcher at the BBC. Even when you are agency side, you can help your clients to be part of the process. When we worked with CERN at Mark Boulton Design, we also made sure to involve our client team in research — both qual and quant insight gathering exercises, so they could be exposed to the messy back end as opposed to the polished ‘results’. Throughtout all of these different experiences, the times I’ve seen the most ‘lightbulb’ moments have been when clients, producers, product managers or designers have been fully immersed in the research process and not just a receiver of research findings.

So, not least because of the danger of bias, getting people involved in the research process is key. Get them to be part of a project or to do their own research but also involve them in the analysis. My preferred method of analysis for interviews is the collaborative post it note, affinity sort method (nicely documented on the GDS blog) and preferably this should be done in a physical space. Remote analysis is trickier to get right but with globally distributed teams at Monotype, this is something we often had to do using tools like Trello and Zoom. The act of sorting and moving physical bits of paper or Trello cards around and the conversations about this really makes you think about what you have heard. It takes you beyond the knee-jerk reaction to a solution you can often have when you just hear one or two user interviews.

Bridge the silos

“Forget Big Data — right now, our bigger problem is fragmented data that comes from siloed user research teams.”
Louis Rosenfeld, A List Apart

If people are involved that’s enough right? Well you may have had the most fantastic collaborative session, ‘lightbulbs’ going on all over the place and you came up with some great recommendations or product roadmap changes but this is no good unless you are transparent and share what you have learned. Your process and outcomes need to be captured and documented clearly for others who weren’t involved to see. Straight forward and clear is better than snazzy and fancy. You can build on straightforward with snazzy for different audiences who absorb information in different ways after the fact — eg posters, Vox pops, videos, personas, user stories, journey maps.

For joining the dots, nothing beats talking to your colleagues. I used to run a monthly remote ‘Show and Learn’ at Monotype where different teams could talk about the work they were doing as well as ask for advice and help. This was open to anyone doing or using research in their job — not just user researchers. We used Zoom for this and I would record and share the sessions after the fact for anyone who couldn’t make it (timezones were often a problem with teams in India, Europe and America). So that we could try and avoid doubling up on research, we had a Kanban Trello board where we documented the status of projects going on across the organisation. Between meetings we used Slack for on-going discussions and sharing of ideas.

My team also facilitated a ‘Steering Group’ amongst a handful of more senior research practitioners. Again, this happened remotely as we were dotted across the globe. The agenda of this was to discuss best practice, ethics, standardising tools and processes. Between times, we would hold one to one meetings with each other to talk about projects together or to just act as a support to each other.

I’d argue that sharing specifics is pretty simple but what about the general insights/stuff you learn that’s not always the core remit of the research but crops up along the way? What if it might come in useful at another point? How do you capture this without building an expensive and complicated database? This is something a lot of teams are grappling with. A few years ago, Mailchimp and GDS documented some interesting ways that they share learnings across their organisations. Teams at Monotype used Trello and Nasdaq Mosaiq and Airtable is proving to be quite a popular solution for others. An example of this from our cousins in Market Research are community panels such as the kind that MR agency Verve create for their clients.

Understand the context

“CERN is a really great place to debate things. To explore, to discuss, to probe. It has a unique, stimulating culture where you can put up an idea and have it torn to shreds, or have it made better, or have it generate a thousand other ideas. It is a healthy, collegiate culture that is good for the research that takes place here. But sometimes it can be a really challenging place to take simple decisions.”
Dan Noyes, ex Head of Communications at CERN

Organisational culture plays a big part in how actionable or impactful research is. The client team you work with or the team you are part of clientside aren’t necessarily the only ones that will need to buy into the decisions you might make as a result of research. This was one of the challenges we had when we worked with CERN so we set up a blog to talk about the work we were doing in the open. Many other organisations have done the same — GDS, Co-Op digital, NHS digital.

Understanding the business landscape and the broad context that you’re working in — researching the research — is the key to making an impact with your research. It’s important to consider the organisational culture at the outset of a project and factor this into your process. Changing a culture of an entire organisation is not something you can necessarily fix, particularly if you’re not part of the company and they are your client but there are things you can do to make research more impactful.

At some companies there is a culture of data trouncing insights so you might need to take a mixed methods approach. Some companies have a culture of the Research Debrief and 100 slide Powerpoint decks so rather than fight against that, you will need to be accommodating in the way you deliver your findings. If you’re in-house, be careful not to just communicate with your immediate colleagues and those at the same level as you. Make sure you ‘show and tell’ your work to your executive team too. They need to understand and see the value of what you are doing in order to carry on funding it. I love this example from Market Research agency The Sound who produce research documentaries.

Create the environment

So how do you keep all this top of mind and create the right environment for doing your best work? Create and agree some principles. Make them about not just what you will do but how you will do it and what the impact will be. The principles themselves can be really simple but getting everyone to be part of the process of creating them and agreeing to them is key. Then keeping them front of mind and using them as a basis for your work should help you to create more of an impact. No-one wants to see their work banished to the Research graveyard. By collaborating with others and making your work actionable and shareable, you are giving it the best chance to succeed.